Yerevan city guide

Travel guides will tell you that Yerevan is a city of contradictions. Old meets new…yada-yada-yada. The truth is that Yerevan is your grandfather's Lada. It’s old, it’s rusty and it refuses to break down. Slap a little resin on it and YOUR great-grandchildren will happily inherit it. You think Rome deserves the title of the Eternal City? Think again. Yerevan is ancient. In fact, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited area in the world. Like that grandpa's Lada. Mount Ararat, which you can see from the city, is symbolic to Armenians. They believe that Noah’s Ark rests somewhere on that peak. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone eventually found it, resting inside some obscure cave. People have been living in this area since the 4th millennium BC! That’s a long time. Sadly, the way Yerevan is, you couldn’t tell. You won’t be tripping over cuneiform tablets along random sidewalks. I believe that all that is of secondary importance to modern Armenians. What they care about the most is mending their wounds. There is always a context, though. All nations went through their own tragedies, but the Armenian tragedy was as bad as it can get. Most historical sources refer to April 24, 1915 as the official starting date of the Armenian Genocide. On that day that Ottoman soldiers rounded up, arrested, and deported from Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the region of Angora (Ankara) up to 270 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, of whom most were eventually killed. The large scale and systematic deportation and massacre of ethnic Armenians by Turkish troupes of the Ottoman empire went on during World War I and even beyond. By the year 1923 around 1.5 million people were dead: murdered in cold blood or starved to death, and many more were expelled from their home country. Turkey still disputes the numbers and the term “Genocide’ still drives modern Turks outrageous but I will not be going in depth about this. The Armenian Genocide Museum tells that story better than I ever could. Yerevan became a sanctuary for the poor people who somehow escaped this national tragedy.

Yerevan city skyline and mount Ararat

A view from Yerevan to mount Ararat: a symbol of Armenia, which, paradoxically, is located on the territory of Turkey

I would say the Armenians are doing pretty well considering the circumstances and where they came from. The Armenian diaspora worldwide is immense; especially countries like Canada and France have traditionally large Armenian communities. The Armenians living abroad have a reputation for being successful. And then I do not mean only the Kardashians, singer/actress Cher or the late French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour. I have been often told that the best doctors in Russia are Armenians. And for what’s it worth: the few Armenian friends I have met in my life accomplished a lot in arts, music and cinematography. The relatively wealthy Armenians living abroad traditionally send money to relatives in the home country or invest in local business and especially the capital profits from that. Yerevan underwent already an impressive growth during the second Russian rule over Armenia. It finally became the industrial, educational, and cultural capital it was meant to be. That was in the late 1920s, relatively not long ago. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and that’s when Armenia became truly independent. Take a walk around the city centre and you’ll still notice the Soviet influence. It is surprisingly not repulsive.

The Republic Square is where you’ll find most landmarks in Yerevan. Locals will gather around the fountains for evening light shows and music concerts. The History Museum and the Opera house are also very interesting. The Opera was designed by Alexander Tamanian; the person responsible for the Soviet-era revitalization of Yerevan. He’s got his own monument at the bottom of the Cascade. I don’t even know how to describe the Cascade. It’s like a massive staircase, but you could mistake it for a temple or a pyramid. That makes a perfect place for all the prehistoric treasures, right? Nope, the entire area was dedicated to contemporary art. Still awesome, but…perhaps a little misplaced. All the characteristic buildings around the square are the reason why Yerevan is known as “the Pink City”. It’s because of all the pinkish-hued bricks, made from all the volcanic soil around Mount Ararat. You could say that most homes here have a piece of the holy mountain in their walls. There are a lot of those in the Kond: a district in Yerevan dating back to the 17th century. It is a part of the capital, but it feels more like a village somewhere in the mountains. All the city walking and stairs climbing will make you hungry. So indulge yourself in the incredible rich local cuisine. As everywhere in the Caucasus the grilled meat, stew dishes and stuffed pastries will make everyone mouth watering. Typically for the Armenian cuisine is the use of nuts. You can find nuts all over the place or better said: over your plate; walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts and pistachios. And also fresh and dry fruit such as quince, melons, and especially apricots are common ingredients of many Armenian dishes. The apricot has become even a national symbol of the county. Just to know in case you would wonder why the critically acclaimed national film festival is named Golden Apricot and also the national Oscars go under the same name. Having one of those famous local cognacs after your copious Armenian dinner is mandatory. They are considered to be the best of the world. Remember: the older the better because the flavours become more intense with the years. So maybe you can try a cognac bottled during to the era when Stalin used to send Churchill boxes of them. That is to say: when you could afford the sky-high price tag of such old treasure.

Zvartnots Temple and Mount Ararat

Zvartnots temple, discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, 10 km from Yerevan, belongs to early medieval Armenia; also known as the "Temple of the Vigilant Angels"

When being in Yerevan, be also sure to plan some trips to the magnificent Armenian countryside. The nature is breath taking with unique flora and fauna and you will encounter striking ancients churches and temples to the backdrop of snow topped mountain peaks, deep canyons and lush forests. The capital makes an excellent location to make some day trips since many landmarks are relatively nearby. Garni Temple is on top of the list of most travellers. It’s the only Pagan temple in the region and truly magnificent. A visit of Garni is usually combined with Geghard Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, carved in rocks and situated in spectacular mountainous scenery. Lake Sevan is also a very popular day-trip to get a sea experience in this landlocked country and offers magnificent panoramic views. Very close to Yerevan you can find Zvartnots temple, which was constructed in the 7-th century. Although only the ruins of the medieval temple are left, they still will give you the idea of its rare and majestic beauty.

Visit the Erebuni Fortress to dig even deeper into the origins of Yerevan. This place used to be the capital around 782 BC. There’s an on-site museum housing all the cool stuff people have excavated here throughout the years. Armenians have been known as collectors of ancient scriptures in the past. Too bad that most of it has been plundered during countless conflicts. What remains is stored in the Matenadaran: an underground vault/museum. It makes me think about the Vatican Archives. Who knows what knowledge is buried deep in these treasuries? It’s practically a temple. Levon’s Divine Underground is yet another cool spot hidden beneath the streets of Yerevan. It came into existence like many other things in the world: out of a woman’s whim. Levon’s wife wanted a cellar to store potatoes. The man was a true artisan; he finished the cellar and kept digging deeper. What for? Perhaps he just enjoyed it. Maybe it was better than sitting upstairs with the wife. Perhaps he even wanted to escape? We will never know the true story.

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